Self-driving cars are all the rage these days.
“Self-driving cars will revolutionize the auto industry!”
“Self-driving cars will make you more beautiful!”
“Self-driving cars will solve all of your life’s problems and make you rich!”
With Google’s recent hiring of Krafcik to turn its self-driving experiment into a real business and Tesla doing its Tesla thing, people seem to think that autonomous vehicles will be ubiquitous in the foreseeable future. Not a chance.
Just imagine how complicated it is to develop something like a driverless car that will be able to navigate the mess of roads we face day in and day out filled with cars driven by idiots. Not only that, self-driving cars also have to deal with pedestrians wandering around aimlessly, animals running across the road, construction-related obstacles and the occasional mattress that flies out of the roof of someone’s Honda Pilot going at 80 mph that was barely strapped on using duct tape.
The sheer amount of technology that needs to be developed in order to adequately manage these random occurrences and the subsequent scaling of this technology needed to make all of this available for mass consumption will take decades. It’s akin to creating a moving robot that can think and make its own decisions.
I would say that as a society, we have forgotten how to make extraordinary things. Look at what our brilliant minds are busy doing these days – creating apps like Yo to send you a text message that only says “Yo”, or Pooductive, a social network created for people that are sitting on toilets (yes, folks, this is a real thing). Precious resources and brainpower are being thrown at finding ways to keep our increasingly distracted minds continuously entertained. In addition to the nonstop 24/7 diversions, we are also working on eliminating basic human functionality like chewing food. Soylent is a liquid meal replacement that will remove the burden of you actually having to cook any food and obviate the need to deal with a repetitive jaw movement.
There are apps now that will wash your laundry, take a shower for you, read to you, brush your teeth and tuck your kids in for you (parents, be scared). The only thing left is for you to stop existing so that apps can completely take over the world. Here is an example of a person in China whose entire day is defined by jumping from one app to the next.
To be honest, I have to say that I’m pumped out about the on-demand gas delivery app that I came across the other day. I can finally stop going to a gas station. I will lose my mind if the next time I go to a gas station, I have to deal with bees, yet again, hovering around the gas pump finding ways to sting me.
These days, venture capitalists and investors just want to make a quick buck. They want an overnight 200x return on their investment and then go onto the next “TheMostWorthlessAppEverCreated” app that will make them their next billion. It seems like the only people doing anything worthwhile lately are Elon Musk, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google); at this very moment they are probably sitting around a table trying to figure out how to make time travel a reality. That’s not even a far-fetched idea considering the fact that Elon is basically the real life version Tony Stark with all of his Space-X’ing and Hyperlooping.
Even Apple isn’t doing much. How many times will Apple iterate on the iPhone before we get something truly pioneering? After iPhone 234S comes out? Supposedly, they are developing a secret car but they’ve sat on billions upon billions of dollars of cash without doing anything with it for years; God forbid that companies with lots of cash ever use it to work on things that are truly disruptive.
My point in stating of all of this is that we haven’t done anything close to groundbreaking in so many years. A driverless car will take forever to make a reality simply because of the fact that we are too focused on incremental innovation and not revolutionary innovation.
Think about how incredibly complex a self-driving car needs to be. How many billions of things do you have to factor in when when building an autonomous car? Yes, we have features built to assist us while driving like lane detection, adjustable cruise control, and self-parking but these are all relatively simple features if you think about what a driverless car needs to be equipped with. There are a gazillion different scenarios that an autonomous vehicle needs to be able to handle. However, I will only review three scenarios since that’s as many as my mind can handle before I faint from an overworked brain.
Note: In order to avoid having to state “self-driving car” over and over again, I will now refer to one as “Bob”.
Let’s say Bob is driving along with heavy traffic on a road when all of a sudden a schizophrenic squirrel jumps out right in front of it.
Here is how a human driver would react. He would probably be in the middle of texting his newest Tinder find, “Hey baby, whatcha wanna do tnite?” and while dreaming of “tnite’s” festivities, he would feel a slight bump, look up for a split-second to see what’s going on, and then go back to texting thinking that he just ran over a pothole.
In the meantime, the poor squirrel would have been completely flattened.
Bob, of course, in a situation like this, will have to make a decision. It can’t just stop because of a squirrel because then it will create a potentially hazardous situation if there are lots of cars on the road. But it also just can’t run over it because what if it was a baby instead of a squirrel crawling across the road? What Bob must have here is a “Do Not Kill A Living Thing” function programmed into it or at the very least have a “Try Not To Kill A Living Thing” logic somewhere embedded inside its programming.
There has to be a Google engineer who is in charge of Bob’s “living creature detection” project and here is the logic they would have to build.
That’s a lot of work.
What would Bob do when there’s a yellow light? Would Bob be overly cautious and slam on the brakes every time or would it make a judgment based on how long the light would last and how fast it’s going? What would that flowchart look like?
Oh…what if the lights aren’t working and Bob encounters a human directing traffic?
I won’t bore you with the details of that logic but what this means is that the number of possibilities Bob will encounter on the road is truly staggering; it’s enough to even give a Google engineer with an IQ of 123120598 a heart attack.
Folks, it will take decades to fine-tune this logic to ensure that Bob not only doesn’t kill anyone on the road but also keeps its occupants safe. Well, it looks like that that dumb jock that bullied you in school is actually smarter than you thought – he was actually able to drive a car! Or maybe not. But one thing’s for sure – it will take quite a bit of work to even get to the mental capacity of a stupid bully who may not even be intelligent enough to drive a car.
Bob needs to ask itself this question or perhaps ask its passengers: how fast do I really need to go? Should I be driving aggressively or conservatively? What does my passenger want?
The default mode in autonomous vehicles would likely be a fairly conservative setting because people would want to make sure that they could actually eat breakfast in the car, drink coffee, shave or put on makeup (or may be both) on their way to work. But the question is whether Bob’s driving style should be adjustable. Surely, passengers would want some control over Bob if they’re running late, right?
Passenger: Hey Bob, can you step it up a notch? please?
Immediately, Bob will need to change virtually everything about how it’s driving. Oh god…the logic, the flow charts, the decision-making – there is so much to program! Aghh…it’s too much!
Sadly, my poor brain can’t handle much more than these three scenarios but I can assure you that there are likely hundreds of billions of others. What about dealing with security issues like a teenager hacking into Bob? Let’s not get into that right now.
The number the combinations and permutations resulting from the randomness of life unfolding in front of you as you’re driving along is enormous. Bottomline, there’s just a ton of effort that needs to be put into Bob since this is arguably one of the most challenging efforts to undertake primarily because of the fact that these cars will have to deal with humans – one of the most unpredictable of all things natural. We are quite looney. It will take decades for this technology to get to a point where artificial intelligence can keep humans safe on our dangerous roads.
Here’s another thing. There is no way we will treat Bob the same way we do cars with insane humans driving them. Every day on the roads or on the battlefield, we can kill, maim, and destroy each and as long as it’s a human that does it – that’s ok. But can you imagine the uproar if Bob kills a human? Protests would break out across the country with people setting up camp on various grassy lawns with coolers full of beer, partying, reveling and every now and then, holding up signs and screaming at the top of their lungs.
This would go on for weeks and then they would eventually leave to find something else to protest about. In the meantime, there would be hundreds of interviews and people in media going on and on about the dangers of having Bobs roaming around on the streets while human drivers are killing each other in the thousands by driving their own vehicles.
Now, I will say that there are huge benefits to having driverless cars on the road. Not only will Bobs make the roads safer, but they will allow people who can’t drive due to a disability much more flexibility. Happiness will increase since people with self-driving vehicles won’t have to deal with road rage anymore. And as for auto enthusiasts – the joy will be boundless.
Once we enter the period of time when we’re inhabiting the same roads that driverless cars are on, we can rest assured that people who have their heads buried in their phones will now be carefully stowed away in robotic vehicles. We will finally be able to drive in peace. No longer will we have to worry about random cars drifting into our lanes, crashing into us or getting rear-ended. I trust that Bobs will not hit us (at least 99.99% of them) and keep us out of harm’s way. It will be the golden era for those of us who love to drive.
But that era will be many years from now. I’m sure some day our roads will having nothing but Bobs. But at least for now, we have amazing machines that we can control and love dearly. It’s too hard to create Bob and so we’ll let those people struggle to make that a reality…in the meantime, let’s keep driving and love every second of it.
We ain’t goin’ nowhere!
Torque Affair is about exploring my fascination with cars; I’m always on the lookout for things that interest me in the car world.